The Singing Librarian’s 2019 in review – Theatre part 1: Watching it


About 20 theatre programmes scattered atop each other.

Some of 2019’s theatre viewing.

This has been quite a year for seeing shows. I have seen 4 West End musicals, 2 Broadway musicals (thanks to my most amazing housemates) and a whole host of other plays, musicals and pantomimes. This has included probably the best show I have ever seen, along with many other memorable moments.

When I see a show, I try to just enjoy it as an audience member. But parts of my brain inevitably end up watching it as an actor, a director, a stage manager, a writer. My mind is awash with “why did they do it like that?”, “nice lighting effect!”, “I wonder how often people spot that switch?”, “fantastic juxtaposition!”, “why was that scene needed?” and “ooh, cool segue!”. As well, of course, as the usual “wow!” and “yay!” and the occasional “bored now…”.

A couple of the shows I saw in London are fairly new musicals which have already established themselves as smash hits and likely to be classics that future generations revive over and over again. Hamilton was one of the slickest productions I can remember, with excellent timing, choreography and company work. Brilliant writing, too, which forces you to pay attention to lyrics delivered at breakneck speed. It struck me that there were many things in this very American show which echo some of the big issues in British society today – certainly I felt that there were things which would resonate with both Remainers and Leavers. And Come From Away, telling the story of Gander, Newfoundland in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, is both uplifting and heartbreaking. This too had brilliant company work, using simple costume changes and a few chairs to create a wide variety of people and places. Definitely the best thing I saw in the UK this year…

Locally, I saw some excellent productions as well. The Lindley Players at the Whitstable Playhouse produced some cracking plays this year. Beautiful ThingThe Woman Who Cooked Her Husband and Frankenstein were all engrossing and memorable with some spot-on performances. I saw Frankenstein in rehearsal (as I was on stage elsewhere during all of its performances), but even without lighting or full costume it was haunting and moving. I saw some original writing as well, which ranged from the sublime to the awkward. This included a brilliantly unsettling piece of site-specific theatre, Left Behind, performed in an attic, plus an unconventional murder mystery. I also saw a rare thing – a musical that I didn’t think should have been a musical. I won’t name it, but it was a case where the piece would have worked much better as a play which would have allowed the potentially fascinating story to live in a different way.

I travelled around England to see friends perform, direct and musical direct a range of shows. One of my friends turned in an astonishing portrayal of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar (yes, I’m probably biased, but he was quite incredible). Others wowed me as fairy tale princesses in Disenchanted and a wide variety of jesters, fairies and more ordinary folk. I love a good pantomime (oh yes I do) and got to see three of them this year. Some of these were quite far away, but well worth the travel time to see friends being amazing and to shout, cheer and boo my head off.

Over in New York, we were lucky enough to take in 2 musicals – both excellent, but so very different. There was a different atmosphere to theatre in NYC, perhaps an extra crackle of anticipation in the air. The first show we saw was Frozen, which is brilliant at what it does. It takes a film which already had a highly theatrical score, and makes it work in a very different medium. The new songs add to it, with the standout being the bizarre ‘Hygge’ and the necessary ice and snow effects make for several “wow” moments – the most impressive being when Elsa’s ice powers spread across the theatre’s proscenium arch.

We then saw Hadestown. Definitely the best thing I saw this year and quite possibly the best thing I have ever seen in my life. It takes ancient myth and creates a tale for our time – despair and hope, victory and defeat, love and art and fear are all beautifully drawn. Someone near me in the stalls, probably around 20 years of age, said that she had been several times and this was her generation’s Rent. I didn’t get this at first, but when I talked about if afterwards, it made sense. There is a message of defiant hope, of perseverance against impossible odds and of faith when all seems bleak. This can speak so powerfully to the up and coming generation – a generation who have it all, and who have nothing. The richest ever generation materially, who often seem so poor in other ways, and who legitimately fear the future. These lyrics in particular speak to the growing feeling that there’s a battle which may be hopeless but will be fought nonetheless:

Some birds sing when the sun shines bright.

Our praise is not for them.

But the ones who sing in the dead of night.

We raise our cups to them.

I can’t explain why I loved Hadestown so much, but have never managed to articulate it. Everything just worked – writing, direction, performances, choreography, design, band, sense of occasion. In some ways it is so simple, in others so profound. It contained moment after moment after moment that I will never forget and which keep me thinking about them. About how these ancient stories seem so contemporary, and how hope can bloom in the darkest places. Perhaps it is impossible to explain, and perhaps that is the essence of live theatre – you simply have to be there.

To everyone involved in anything I saw this year, from the very best to the least impressive, and whether I have specifically named it here or not, I say a huge thank you. I was privileged to be in the room where each and every one of these performances happened. I can’t wait to see what the live stage brings in 2020 – if it’s even half as good as what I experienced this year, I’m in for a treat!

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